In my last post, I talked about how not all daydreaming is good…how our thoughts can drift into negative content, which provides the fuel for negative emotions such as anxiety and depression. What do we do about this problem?
As you might guess, this is a really BIG topic. There’s no way to quickly and easily resolve this problem, but I do want to say a few, hopefully helpful, things about this.
One, I believe that, for most people in Western countries, most of our distress is from our minds wandering off and gravitating toward distressing content. I do believe that there is real suffering that we all experience. Such things include loss of loved ones, divorce, moving, your home burns down, significant and/or chronic injuries, and so on.
Although I’m not a Buddhist, I do like a lot of Buddhist philosophy and think that there is inherent truth to the first pillar of Buddhism that “life is suffering.” Not that all of life is suffering, just that we will not be able to live life without encountering some suffering along the way – it is unavoidable and part of the human condition.
Interestingly, there is research to support the idea that, for most people living in Western countries, people who are often depressed and/or anxious are not typically experiencing significantly more negative life events than happier people. It is more often the case that such individuals are perceiving events in such a way that elicits negative feelings and/or ruminating about these topics in a negative way. Thus, it is often the case that we experience significant amounts of psychological suffering needlessly. We worry, fret, and bemoan things that haven’t happen, won’t happen, could never happen, happened long ago, and, most importantly, are not happening right now. They are merely thoughts in our heads at this point.
I’m going to give two examples of this – one is kind of funny, the other more serious. The first happened the other day with my eldest son. He’s almost 6 and was playing Pokemon on his Nintendo DS. While he was brushing his teeth, he set the game down. I thought the volume was a little loud, so I reached over to turn it down. Unfortunately, I accidentally turned his DS off.
Well, my son freaked out thinking he had lost about 15 minutes of progress since his last save. He had a minor meltdown. Once he finally recovered from the shock, he turned it back on and discovered that his progress had been saved. In essence, he suffered absolutely needlessly (and me too!). He didn’t check to see if the “bad event” had actually happened before he started suffering for it. There was an important lesson that he learned here – if you are going to freak out about losing progress in a game, first check to see if the progress was actually lost before freaking out!
Here’s a more serious example to which many of us can relate. We have a bump on our skin that we get checked out by the doctor. Maybe it’s a mole or something and we are worried about skin cancer. The doctor takes a look and agrees that it’s best to remove it and have it biopsied.
Perhaps even before we went to the doctor…when we first noticed the bump…our mind jumped right to it – CANCER! Now, of course, cancer is a very scary disease and we’ve all probably had frightening brushes with the illness. I lost my mother to the disease, so I know it is terrible.
But that’s not what we’re talking about here. Our thoughts hit the “Oh my God – I probably have cancer” button WAY too early. Before we go to the doctor, before the doctor has even examined us, before we get the biopsy results back WE ARE SUFFERING NEEDLESSLY. In fact, we are suffering about as much distress for thinking we have the disease than we would even if we had received the diagnosis. That’s because our bodies react to the “what if” scenarios in our brains as “what is.” We go into full fight/flight mode. Adrenal is released as is cortisol, the stress hormone which, ironically, suppressing our immune system.
Now, I could go on and on with examples from my life, from working with clients, and so on but I think you see where I am coming from on this. For most of us, we suffer because our minds create these fictions in our heads that lead to a cascade of negative emotions.
Do you suffer needlessly sometimes? I know I do as well, but I’m getting better and better at minimizing this type of suffering. Perhaps before we move on to some ways of dealing with this type of suffering, first reflect on how this type of suffering affects you on a daily basis. Perhaps you can even think of some specific examples. Now, let’s use this realization to fuel your motivation to minimize its effects.
Again, I can’t cover every aspect of this, but I’ll give some ways of coping with it in my next post.
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